Nearly a decade and half into the new millennium, direct mail is still the workhorse for fundraisers. And while it’s true that multichannel fundraising is a must, direct mail is still a vital piece to acquiring, retaining and cultivating donors. The key, as in any fundraising medium, is engagement.
Take, for instance, MSPCA-Angell and the League of Women Voters (LWV). In its annual, year-end special event campaign, MSPCA-Angell utilizes direct mail to renew donors by engaging their passion for their pets. Meanwhile, LWV includes a popular, hard-to-resist engagement device in its direct-mail acquisition control to engage new supporters and get them to join and donate to the organization.
Renewal/Retention: Turning Pets Into Stars
There are few things more valuable to fundraisers than donors who renew their giving each year. So when a nonprofit organization unearths a campaign that routinely draws response and renews donors, it’s a proverbial fundraising gold mine.
Boston-based animal-welfare organization MSPCA-Angell has such a campaign. Developed more than 15 years ago, the MSPCA-Angell’s Holiday Tree event has become a donor-retention specialty. The event, which coincides with a multichannel fundraising appeal spearheaded by direct mail, allows donors to send in photos of their pets, which are in turn made into ornaments and hung on one of three holiday trees at the Prudential Center in Boston’s shopping district.
Then, there is a Tree Lighting Ceremony free of charge to donors to attend so they can view their pets’ ornaments displayed on the trees.
“People love their pets, and they love showing off their pets,” says Anthony Genovese, CEO of full-service direct-response agency DaVinci Direct, which partners with MSPCA-Angell and won FundRaising Success’ 2011 Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence for the Holiday Tree campaign. “This gives them an opportunity to help an important cause, to really connect with the organization in a personal way, and to honor their pet at the same time.”
The Holiday Tree has become a treasured tradition that donors look forward to each year. It started with a single tree outside the organization’s building and has grown to three trees this past year inside the Prudential Center.
The fundraising campaign behind the event is truly multichannel, incorporating email blasts, social media, a Web landing page and posters. But it is the direct mail that is the driving force.
Being a renewal campaign, its main goal is to retain donors and get them to give and participate. For 2013, MSPCA-Angell also wanted to maximize gross and net revenue, renew direct-mail and online donors at an acceptable cost per dollar raised, encourage multichannel giving, and cultivate and delight donors with a fun, uplifting special event.
Thus, the bulk of the target audience comprised current donors, while a select group of 24- to 36-month-lapsed donors also were mailed.
“This is aimed at the regular direct-mail donors, people who give $40, $50, $75, $100 and up, of course, as opposed to an event where it costs $250 or $500 for a ticket. This is aimed at the backbone of the donors. It gives them a chance to participate in a way that’s kind of unique,” Genovese says.
This control package, which has been mailed in different iterations for the past six years, includes four-color artwork on the No. 10 outer envelope as well as the brochure inside. It also includes a reply slip with a small brochure, a personalized letter and a reply envelope.
The OE displays a holiday tree branch with two ornaments hanging off the tree: a star-shaped ornament with a photo of a cat named Scout and a round ornament with the photo of Kisses the dog. It includes a teaser above the address window: “Make your pet shine on our 2013 Holiday Tree (It’s a wonderful way to help animals in need.) Details inside …” The first line (before the parentheses) is in larger, red type, with the second line in a smaller, green font, keeping in the holiday spirit.
Inside, a one-page letter begins: “I want to offer you an opportunity to display a favorite photo of your pet for more than half a million people to see — and help thousands of animals in need at the same time!”
That attention-grabbing opener, which includes bold text, precedes more information on the campaign, stressing that “For as little as $15, we can decorate an ornament with your pet’s name, and for just a little more we can feature your pet’s photo on an ornament for all those visitors to admire!”
The letter details that 100 percent of donations go to the MSPCA-Angell’s Pet Care Assistance program, which pays for veterinary care when an animal’s owner can’t afford it. It also shares the story of Kisses and other animals in need, includes a P.S. with a Nov. 29 deadline for ornaments, and provides a landing page — mspca.org/2013holidaytree — to get more information.
The brochure cover includes similar imagery as the OE, with a mini-teaser, again in red and green: “In this season of giving, give life to animals in need, and honor your pet at the same time!”
More ornament examples, along with prices — $15 candy cane, $25 festive ball, $50 graceful bell and $100 shining star — are on the brochure that is above the reply device, with more red and green text and more details on the campaign. Donors can order online at the same landing page included in the postscript or return the reply device.
Over the past few years, DaVinci and MSPCA-Angell have made some testing tweaks, including using a red envelope to resemble a Christmas card as opposed to the four-color window OE, but the control won out. However, the animals featured each year change to help keep the creative fresh.
Posters also were displayed with similar creative, asking shoppers not to forget the animals by making donations to the MSPCA-Angell and to attend the Tree Lighting Ceremony.
The mail package and posters were supplemented online through email, the e-newsletter, Twitter, Facebook, the website and the specific landing page, all of which used similar creative and messaging.
Mailed at the end of October, the direct-mail package was rolled out to 60,000 donors, both current and lapsed up to 36 months. In addition, 88,642 emails went out through two blasts — and the results not only brought in nearly $140,000, but continued to keep donors active on the file.
The direct-mail component brought in $121,860 ($89,533 net) with a 6.02 percent response rate, $46.67 average gift and a cost per dollar raised of 26 cents. The email portion accounted for $17,045 more raised with an 11.26 percent open rate and 0.63 percent clickthrough rate.
Overall, 1,820 ornaments were purchased, and a financial services company was a corporate sponsor for the event, paying to have its ornament as one of the tree-toppers. Two other donors made larger donations to have their ornaments as tree-toppers as well. That led to $33,000 more raised overall in 2013 than 2012.
Of course, with such tremendous response and so many ornaments purchased, it was a bit of a challenge to get all the ornaments ready in time for the lighting. After all, the MSPCA-Angell manually makes each ornament. So to meet demand, the organization tapped volunteers, staff, local companies and colleges, and different groups that wanted to be involved to help in make the ornaments.
“Putting together the ornaments is fun because you get to look at people’s pets and names, and you cut them out and put them on. It really engages people. It’s a small aspect, but something that’s very important,” says Alice Bruce, vice president of development at MSPCA-Angell. “We’re finding it useful as a corporate community-building tool too.”
Keys to success
For starters, a major key is the fact that this campaign really gets people involved with the organization. Donors get to send their own photos of their pets — whether it is honoring a deceased pet or showcasing their current ones — and then get to attend a free event and check out their pets’ (and others’) ornaments throughout the holidays. That active engagement has made the event a staple and given supporters a reason to think about MSPCA-Angell all year long.
“This is one of those events that people wait for and look forward to,” Genovese says. “For myself, I’m thinking throughout the year of a good photo. I have three Chihuahuas that I always put on the tree, and I’m thinking of which would be a nice picture all year.”
Another key, Bruce says, is the campaign’s broad appeal.
“There’s a way to engage all of our donors in this,” she says. “That’s what’s fun about it — it engages across the board. It’s not just our direct-mail $25 donors; it’s our $25 donors and our $15,000 donors or our $20,000 donors. They all want to see their ornaments on their tree. That’s what makes it really special.”
And of course, none of this would be possible without the full support of the organization and its agency.
“It’s not like we’re a giant organization here,” Bruce says. “We’re small, and we work across everything together so that the people who are involved with the direct mail work very closely with our website strategists and marketing people. We meet every week, and we talk about strategy. Nothing happens without talking to everybody.
“… The success with everything you do has got to do with communication. If those lines of communication aren’t open, you have to find the time because you can only bolster each other, help each other. If you don’t, you’re going to wind up creating more work anyway,” she adds.
Given the continued success and the fact that MSPCA-Angell sees a large portion of the same donors year after year participate in the campaign, this direct-mail control — and multichannel campaign — will continue to be a staple for the animal-welfare organization.
Acquisition:League of Women Voters National Opinion Survey
To acquire news donors through the mail, you have to develop the most aesthetically pleasing package you can possibly afford, right? Wrong.
Just ask the League of Women Voters, whose current direct-mail acquisition control utilizes a simple, white outer envelope.
“We were just speaking about how boring our mail pieces are and how oftentimes we get people who want us to do four-color, fancy creative. This is the plainest, most stereotypical institutional survey, and it works,” says Rose Simmons, director of direct marketing at LWV.
That survey is LWV’s “National Opinion Survey,” which polls voters on their voting experiences and issues. For the nonpartisan political organization whose mission is to encourage informed and active participation in government through education and advocacy, the survey is a mission-appropriate device.
But, how exactly did the idea come about?
The ‘war on voters’
Since 1999, LWV had used a standard, institutionalized acquisition package that had a decent ROI. But after testing a more expressive and urgent health care reform package that went gangbusters — but was limited in use due to its reference of a specific issue — LWV was looking for something that could acquire more gifts and more new donors.
A perfect storm arose when legislators began the “war on voters” with proposed voter suppression laws. Working with direct-marketing fundraising agency Avalon Consulting Group, LWV began using the “war on voters” theme in its fundraising appeals to current supporters and donors.
“The war on voters came up, and it was very in line with the League’s core mission,” says Jamie Natelson, vice president at Avalon. “… And it was working really well with our donors, so we wanted to see if it would work as well to get new donors to join the League.”
In August 2010, LWV mailed its first test, utilizing a similar approach as the appeal to its supporters but with more calls to action to join LWV. Originally, the acquisition test included several components, including a clingy decal with the LWV logo, which it eventually tested out of because it added cost but did not affect response. The package — which currently includes a plain, white outer envelope with nothing but “NATIONAL OPINION SURVEY” and “RESPONSE DEADLINE: 10 DAYS” on it, a four-page letter, the two-page survey, two inserts, and a BRE — “just whooped the old control,” Natelson says.
The campaign stands out for new donors because it strays a little from LWV’s typical mailings, which don’t normally utilize many engagement devices.
Targeted at progressive political advocacy lists, as well as co-ops and modeled environmental lists — essentially voters — the letter lays out the urgency of the concerns for voters and specifically tells recipients to: “Make your voice heard by completing and returning the enclosed National Opinion Survey” as well as support LWV with a donation.
The survey comes with instructions and a reply device to make a donation as well, and the inserts focus on voter rights and ask recipients to take action by contacting legislators and joining LWV.
A follow-up appeal is mailed to those who don’t respond, with a “SECOND REQUEST: Immediate Response Requested” teaser.
“People take that deadline to heart,” Simmons says. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls I will get saying, ‘It’s after the deadline, but can I still send in my responses to the survey?’”
Since 2010, besides testing out of the decal, LWV has tested several acquisition formats against this package, such as an old control in January and another retest of a brand-new package, taking out one of the two inserts and both inserts, testing a double carrier, and a No. 11 carrier with a yellow survey. But the National Opinion Survey “does double anything that we mail against it,” Natelson says.
Strategy and results
LWV mails anywhere from 350,000 to 500,000 pieces of this control at a time, mailing the campaign seven times per fiscal year (July, August, September, January, February, May and June), and this acquisition package has been mailed more than 6.8 million times to date.
The original goal was to increase response and lower the cost per donor, which LWV did. Historically, its acquisition response rate had been around 0.65 percent to 0.75 percent. To date, the National Opinion Survey has generated an average response rate of 1.48 percent, bringing in more than $2.1 million for the organization at a $23.28 average gift, lowering the cost per donor in the process. And with a high response rate of 1.83 percent and low of 0.94 percent, it continues to be a winner.
“Folks really care about voter ID, about the threats to voters,” Simmons says. “It’s not just talking about what’s wrong and not just talking about what the League does, but it gives the donor a way to engage that goes beyond just giving money. Sometimes people feel an issue is hopeless and there’s nothing they can do, but we show them that there are steps they can take.”
Support from the board
In order for LWV to lift that historically consistent 0.65 acquisition response rate, it needed the freedom to test. That’s not something that is always the case for organizations, with many limiting and even cutting acquisition budgets.
In fact, LWV significantly cut back on direct-mail acquisition immediately post-911, in addition to cutting the final acquisition effort in 2008-09 due to the economy, and learned its lesson.
“We actually have real data that we can provide to [the board and senior leadership] so they can see what happens to your file when you reduce [acquisition],” Natelson says. “They can see the consequences and realize how important it is to the fundraising program.”
“We are very fortunate to have a board and senior leadership that truly understand and support the importance of acquisition and how that’s an investment in the future of building a strong base of support,” says Laura Zylstra, senior director of development at LWV. “We have support from the ground up to the top down in the organization.”
The power of plain
Another powerful tool for fundraisers looking to get buy-in from the board and senior leadership is showing how sometimes simple is enough. In fact, when asked for advice to fellow fundraisers looking to boost their acquisition, Natelson repeats three simple words: “Plain white envelopes, plain white envelopes, plain white envelopes.
“[Organizations] want to spend their money on art, but they should spend their money on having inserts that coordinate the messaging and also spend their time developing messaging,” she adds.
That’s exactly the strategy LWV utilizes in its National Opinion Survey acquisition control — one that continues to bring in new supporters and donors year in and year out.
Related story: MSCPA-Angell 2013 Holiday Tree Campaign Creative